x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Syrian National Council agrees to invite factions

More activists and political groups from inside Syria will join the main opposition in move likely to consolidate support behind the rebel Free Syrian Army and dilute the influence of militant Islamists.

DOHA // The main opposition Syrian National Council agreed yesterday to expand its membership of political and military factions fighting to overthrow president Bashar Al Assad.

The SNC, under international criticism of its effectiveness, said activists and political groups from inside Syria would form more of the organisation's new members.

The group has been made up mostly of exiles, who have been criticised for being out of touch with those risking their lives in a 20-month civil war that has left more than 35,000 people dead, according to the Syria Observatory for Human Rights.

The accord came as rebels launched a car bomb attack on a military post in Hama province, killing at least 50 troops and loyalist militiamen, the Observatory said.

The SNC is in Doha for four days of talks to convince supporting nations that it can be a viable alternative to the regime.

It is also to address a far more immediate need: improving the supply of weapons to rebels.

Arms from Arabian Gulf countries and elsewhere are flowing to anti-Assad fighters through several, mostly uncoordinated, channels. Most shipments are organised municipality by municipality, rebel faction by rebel faction.

This decentralised support for the insurgents appears have undermined military coordination in the fight against Mr Al Assad, analysts say.

"Everybody has been trying to raise funds indirectly to help the people inside Syria," said Molham Al Drobi, from the Muslim Brotherhood wing of the SNC. Private citizens, many in the Arabian Gulf, have sought to remedy the shortfall, he said.

The agreement reached yesterday calls for the expansion of the SNC's membership from 300 to 400 delegates, mostly representing groups within Syria.

The move is expected to consolidate support behind the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA) and dilute the influence of militant Islamists in the opposition - a key goal of the US and other outside powers.

The SNC is now set to consider a plan to stablish offices inside Syria and work with the FSA to forge a more unified military command.

But after months of infighting and ineffective organisation, the SNC's attempts to maintain its leadership of the anti-Assad opposition may be in vain.

What will dominate attention here in the next two days is US-backed proposal to create a new opposition umbrella group, the Syria National Initiative, headed by the prominent dissident Riad Seif, a former Syrian parliamentarian who escaped the country in June.

Under the proposal, the group would consist of 50 members, only 15 of whom would come from the SNC.

It would include an even a greater percentage of Syrians still living in the country than stipulated in the agreement reached yesterday. It also calls for unifying the opposition's military and political operations.

There is disagreement with the US proposal from Abdel Basset Seida, the SNC president, who says his group should receive at least 40 per cent of the new seats.

But even the plan's critics acknowledge that support from Washington is crucial for the insurgency's success.

"If the FSA doesn't get support and training, there is no way," said Radwan Ziadeh, an SNC member and head of the Syrian Centre for Political and Strategic Studies in the US.

Funding is a prickly subject, and the SNC has struggled to persuade the international community that it is worth its investment.

Mazen Sawaf, who heads the SNC's finance committee, said the group has received about US$40 million (Dh146m) in cash to fund its operations in the past year, half of it from authorities in Libya. No funds, he said, have come from the "Friends of Syria," he said, singling out France, the UK, Saudi Arabia, the US and Canada.

Mr Al Drobi said Qatar, Saudi Arabia and other countries had provided aid in kind to a "war room" set up in Turkey, but it had not been enough.

No one at the meeting appears to know whether agreement with the US plan will be followed by a rush of badly needed aid, including weapons.

"We have been promised support hundreds and thousands of times," said SNC member Adib Shishakly. "We don't want to redo everything if this time will be no different."